Words by Dr. Jude Smith Rachele Photography by Helga Esteb
Colourism is skin colour stratification (Okazawa Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987). It is ‘a form of oppression that is expressed through the differential treatment of individuals and groups based on skin colour. Typically, favouritism is demonstrated toward those of lighter complexions while those of darker complexions experience rejection and mistreatment…’ (Jackson-Lowman, 2013).
There are times when I regret getting involved in the global campaign to end colourism. It’s taken me nearly a full year of campaigning to figure out why I have developed this aversion to participating in, and being coopted into, the conversations about how unjust it is that Black women around the world are considered to be the lesser beauties, if beauties at all, in comparison to European ideals of beauty. Then it dawned on me. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted by the superficiality of physical beauty, allowing our attention to be diverted away from the essence of our true power, our intellectual, spiritual and feminine strength.
Colourism has been in full swing around the world for centuries. It is heartening to see and to experience the widespread positive energy challenging it and attempting to create better, more respectable, outcomes for all who endure it. While I’ve had plenty of direct experience of the subject within the context of African, Asian, European and American cultures, I haven’t had exposure to colourism within Australasia, and in particular Aboriginal cultures. I felt I had to understand what colourism might mean within this cultural context, in order to find inspiration for this article.
In my ignorance, what I didn’t expect to learn was that Aboriginal people are of all skin colours and shades, and that some who clearly look ‘white’ on the outside, fully consider themselves to be culturally and spiritually Aboriginal. I also didn’t expect to see lateral violence within the Aboriginal community – a glaring reflection of how systematically successful colonisation is, not has been. It is this way across the world; we learn to despise our own kin, and in doing so we spend so much time and energy denigrating and competing with one another that our original oppressors no longer need to have an active hand to play in our oppression.
Last year I was invited to talk about colourism on BBC Woman’s Hour, where the hostess asked me where colourism comes from. It was I who had to school her on the methods of her own ancestors, of which she was consciously unaware. I have been shocked by the sheer enormity of Caucasian ignorance on this deeply damaging subject matter. They have forgotten their own history, yet they look to Black history one month a year. For what? I am unsure.
Disintegration of the cultural wisdom which once enabled us to live responsibly, harmoniously and sustainably within nature is my main concern. From a deeply personal perspective, I do not care if the world does not see me as beautiful, and I make little effort to conform to notions of feminine beauty.
So, my discontent with colourism is very different from the frustration which ignites many women around the world to fight for what they perceive to be their rightful place in mass media. I differ because I believe that colonisation, mass media and social oppression can be the best of bedfellows but most deceitful. I stay away from them as much as I can.
For instance, Lupita Nyong’o winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave is not a complete win for any of us. There. I said it. How can this be an absolute win for the cause of colourism when two of the judges who voted for 12 Years a Slave did not even watch the film? These two people publicly confessed they voted for the film, not on its merit, but on the basis that they felt if they didn’t then they would be branded as racists. How many other judges engaged in the same behaviour yet lack the courage and the honesty to come clean? Maybe there were only two judges, and no more. However, the existence of those two creates more than just a shadow of a doubt, and sadly delegitimises the win.
I can’t really pass judgement on the quality of 12 Years a Slave. I too haven’t watched the film, and have no intention of ever doing so. Interestingly enough, my position is also held by some of my Black female friends and colleagues, here in the UK, who are well-known and respected within creative media. Each of us had the same reaction. Independent of one another, we decided, for our own sanity, not to engage in this age-old conversation about racism, women, and beauty on the terms of the colonial cultures which continue to run the machine.
Nevertheless, Ms. Nyong’o took the global stage front and centre as an exalted, beautiful Black woman. The Black community has felt proud, exonerated, and hopeful about changing the landscape. But, we must ask ourselves, was this nothing more than another microemancipation, a bone thrown to us to appease and even to coopt us further into the mass media machine?
In order to dominate and control a nation of people, colonisers have to do much more than make women feel ugly and under-valued. Successful colonisation goes deeper than that. It has to dehumanise people by annihilating Indigenous cultures and traditions.
Colonisation has successfully stripped large parts of the world of Indigenous wisdom, and every other imaginable worth. It has replaced it with abusive power, domination, narcissism and greed. Now, as the world rapidly disintegrates into unsustainable cycles it screams out for Indigenous wisdom, long since devalued. Yet what certain corporate structures are prepared to do instead is parade us down catwalks, put our faces in the occasional glossy magazine, and give us a few starring roles. Behind the scenes the status quo remains the same. We are conspicuous by our absence.
While we may be put in the spotlight one must ask: how close are we really, after all these years, to being the decision makers, to being the occupants of the corridors of power? We are still very far away. To where are we rising by our beauty being objectified? Ending colourism must also bring with it dialogues and strategies to enable us to access those corridors, to become fair and influential decision makers about the nature, purpose, direction and health of our children and of our societies. We must honour and uphold our integrity, not just our physical beauty, and put it at the core of our family and business relations and institutions. We can end colourism most effectively by returning to and living according to our true source. Our real power lies in where we have come from, not in where we wish to go.
Dr. Jude Smith Rachele is co-founder and CEO of Abundant Sun Ltd, a vibrant organisational development consultancy based in the UK. Jude also enjoys being executive producer of digital media projects aimed at raising social awareness and promoting social justice and ethics.